ORLANDO, FLORIDA - In Orlando, Florida, where tourists come for the palm trees, shopping and theme parks, 18,000 women converged recently on the city's giant convention center to talk about technology.
Amid technical sessions on artificial intelligence and augmented reality, the main theme of the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest gathering of women in technology worldwide, was simple: How to make the tech industry more welcoming to women.
With women making up nearly 23 percent of the U.S. tech industry's workforce, women should be playing a bigger role than they currently do in the industry, said Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"It's time the world recognizes that the next Bill Gates may not look anything like the last one and that not every great idea comes wrapped in a hoodie," said Melinda Gates, who worked at Microsoft earlier in her career.
This isn't your typical technology conference.
First, its namesake "Grace Hopper" was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and a groundbreaking computer programmer.
The conference also provided childcare and all-gender bathrooms. At some of the career booths, women were offered lip balm embossed with a corporate name. At one booth, they were invited to vamp it up, while promoting a new cloud computing service.
Chinyere Nwabugwu, a machine learning researcher at IBM Research in San Jose, California, said what she liked most was hearing about what successful women have done to get ahead.
"I'm just encouraged to work hard in my field, to be known for something, to put in my best, to be a good role model to others, mentor other people coming after me," Nwabugwu said.
Town hall conference
Voice of America held a town hall at the conference where female leaders in technology talked about the progress that has been made and how far it has yet to go. There are concrete steps companies can take that will bring more women into the industry, the speakers said.
One simple thing companies can do is publicly announce job openings, rather than fill jobs from managers' personal connections, said Danielle Brown, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Google.
Paula Tolliver, chief information officer at Intel, recently left one male-dominated industry — she was an executive at Dow Chemical — for the tech industry. But she said she was drawn by tech's promise.
"Being CIO of Intel, and being at the middle of the ecosystem of Silicon Valley and working across many industries, it's exciting," Tolliver said. "And I personally, want more women to be more representative of that."
Deborah Berebichez, a data scientist and co-host of the Discovery Channel's Outrageous Acts of Science, said that she pursued science despite the lack of support from her parents.
Gatherings, such as the Grace Hopper Celebration, are solving two important problems in the tech industry, Berebichez said: How to interest more women in tech and how to help women already in tech to advance their careers.
Gender diversity issues
Both issues came to the forefront in August after a memo written by a male engineer at Google questioned the need for gender diversity programs in the industry.
In a 10-page internal memo that was leaked on social media, James Damore suggested fewer women are employed in the technology field because women "prefer jobs in social and artistic areas" due to "biological causes."
Brown, who joined Google two weeks prior to the notorious memo, said that it upset both men and women at the company and didn't reflect Google's values. Damore was fired.
Berebichez's message to women?
"You're the only one that can make your future," Berebichez said. "Nobody else will do it for you so seek mentors, do whatever you have to do, study like crazy, be very entrepreneurial and craft your path, because you will be the only one that gets the fruits of your own labor."